On Howard Stern

In Tuesday's Washington Post, Libby Copeland insightfully explored the changes in Howard Stern's style over his decades on the air, including his recent rise as one of America's most perceptive and interesting interviewers. 

This assessment of Stern's interviewing chops came as little surprise to me—for several years, I've called for Stern (and Jon Stewart) to host a presidential debate, because he is consistently well prepared, asks difficult,  probing questions, and refuses to accept garbage answers. 

Yet, while Copeland correctly portrays Stern as having mellowed over time and shifting his focus more towards thought-provoking (if still raunchy) interviews, we must recognize the continuities in his style. To some degree, the idea of a new or transformed Stern is overblown. 

Stern's political sensibilities have always defied easy labeling (scholar Susan Douglas argued that Stern possessed an "incoherent combination of libertarian, liberal, and conservative sensibilities"). Often, observers missed Stern's liberal/libertarian proclivities in the haze of crudeness that dominated his show. They focused on sexist, racist, or homophobic remarks or characterizations, even as Stern also expressed support for liberal political causes.

Stern also has always possessed substantial tools as an interviewer. Furthermore, in another continuity, he's still asking low brow questions about people's sex lives (as Copeland discusses). So any claim that Stern has became tame, or that his show no longer resembles the program that launched him to fame would be somewhat misleading. 

Nonetheless, he has clearly mellowed over the years. Several cultural and business factors likely explain this transition. 

When he moved to satellite radio, Stern likely realized that he needed to adapt his program. For years, he constructed and cultivated a rebellious, shocking persona on terrestrial radio in part by challenging boundaries of propriety, conventions, and laws.

Stern battled the FCC during his final years on terrestrial radio over what he could say—often delighting in baiting regulators. But on satellite radio, the same commentary that generated massive fines for his terrestrial radio employers would no longer be forbidden fruit. Indeed, Stern sacrificed some of the allure of this content by transitioning to a forum where he could genuinely (legally) say whatever he wanted. 

Undoubtedly, the astute Stern also recognizes that American culture has evolved. Americans treat the LGBT population, for example, far better than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the stereotypes that Stern once marshaled would bother friends and admirers in ways that they did not twenty-five years ago (his own views might even have changed). 

The other transcendent radio talent from Stern's era, Rush Limbaugh, has similarly mellowed with time. Today, Limbaugh is much more traditional political commentator, albeit with an absurdist/satirical streak, than the boundary challenging humorist that he was in his early days in national syndication. Things like Homeless Updates, AIDS updates, and miniseries trailers have faded away, replaced by more traditional commentary.

Limbaugh still broadcasts satirical bits and does the occasional imitation, but his broadcasts are far more staid and predictable today than they were in his early years. 

In Limbaugh's case, advertiser and audience demands contributed to the change. Both Stern and Limbaugh also confront far greater scrutiny in the era of internet archiving of every broadcast, increased numbers of watchdogs, and social media. Age, contentment, changes in their own lifestyles, and broader cultural currents have undoubtedly also contributed to the altered product offered by both Stern and Limbaugh.

Finally, we should recognize that pushing boundaries in a fresh way would be far more difficult in a host's third decade of stardom than it was in the first. Had Stern and Limbaugh continued to churn out the sort of "scandalous" content that so enthralled listeners in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it would seem stale and anachronistic today. 

Ranking the Presidents Since World War II

A short preface—these rankings, of course, reflect my ideological sensibilities, as well as the relative weight that I accord to each element of the presidency. Truthfully, ranking the presidents presents an almost impossible task—virtually all post-World War II presidents have achieved much, while also committing some terrible blunders. 

I've chosen to group the presidents by tier because more precise rankings would lack fairness or precision. Presidents face diverse circumstances and unique challenges. While, theoretically, they all accept the same responsibilities when they recite the oath of office, the job varies substantially from president to president. 

Even just grouping by tiers requires trying to divine whether a good foreign policy president with a bad domestic policy record deserves greater acclaim than a good domestic policy president with a record littered with foreign policy failures or a great policy president with ethical issues.  

Finally, while presidents often receive far too much credit or blame for economic and societal developments, it is not coincidental that two of the presidents I rank highly, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, served during the relatively prosperous, peaceful decade of the 1990s. Their leadership contributed to that peace and prosperity; conversely, they benefitted from serving in a relatively stable and auspicious moment.  

Tier 1: 

John Kennedy—simply put saving the world from a potentially catastrophic, nuclear World War III earns Kennedy this distinction. Kennedy's advisers urged bellicose action; he withstood their pressure, instead navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis masterfully. Kennedy deescalated tension when it would have proved easy to provoke war.

He also deserves ample credit for correctly diagnosing and understanding the situation in Southeast Asia. Grasping how difficult victory would be, Kennedy resisted any temptation to send substantial American troops to Laos in 1961. At least some scholars also argue that rather than escalate the war in Vietnam, Kennedy would have withdrawn American troops in a second term.

Domestically, Kennedy achieved very little, but he deserves credit for denouncing Southern segregation in moral terms on the biggest stage, however belatedly. Two new books on the Civil Rights Act also indicate that at the time of his death, Kennedy remained deeply engaged in trying to push the Civil Rights Act to completion. 

Tier 2: 

George H.W. Bush— History ought to remember Bush far more kindly than the voters did when they abruptly and prematurely ended his presidency in 1992.

Bush accomplished several landmark pieces of legislation, including the 1990 budget accord, which paved the way for a balanced budget later in the decade, the Americans with Disability Act, and substantial environment legislation. Bush achieved this legislation in spite of a Democratic Congress—displaying a deft pragmatic streak from which today's GOP could learn. 

Internationally, his handling of the crisis in the Persian Gulf laid out a template for fighting a narrow, limited war in the post Cold War world. Bush generated domestic, international, and Congressional support for action, defined limited objectives, and achieved them rapidly.

The only misstep came in failing to support a Shia and Kurdish uprising after Allied troops had repelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Long term, the decision to maintain troops in Saudi Arabia also inflamed Muslim extremists and created problems for the United States. 

Nonetheless, Bush firmly cast aside the pall of Vietnam, and demonstrated on multiple occasions that American might could be a force for good around the world. 

The main blight on his record might be his inability to connect with average voters. Dignified and honorable though he was, Bush didn't possess particularly good leadership skills. Each ideological side might also add one of his Supreme Court appointments to this list (David Souter for conservatives and Clarence Thomas for liberals). 

Bill Clinton—Some might point to Clinton's failure to ever attain a majority of the popular vote or his impeachment to denigrate his presidency. In my view, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr meandered far beyond the legitimate scope of any proper investigation in asking Clinton about his sex life under oath. As a result, I tend to discount Clinton's personal peccadillos when considering his presidency. 

To consider such moral misdeeds in an evaluation also would require dramatically reappraising many of Clinton's predecessors as well. 

When one looks at Clinton's policy record, he achieved a great deal, in spite of facing a hostile Congress during his last six years in office. His achievements span the ideological spectrum, from the Family and Medical Leave Act, AmeriCorps, and increased gun control on the left to welfare reform and balancing the budget on the right.

Impressively, while Clinton compromised frequently with the Republican Congress, he stood his ground on several occasions, most notably vetoing welfare reform twice to extract concessions, and allowing the government to shut down in the winter of 1995 to forestall and/or reverse what he considered to be harmful Republican spending cuts and programatic changes. 

In this regard, Clinton behaved similarly to Bush (who also freely vetoed legislation), achieving the maximum possible through compromise without sacrificing principle. Given their pragmatic streaks, it's relatively unsurprising that they became friendly after Clinton left office.  

Clinton's record has its blots. He recently admitted that his landmark Crime Bill, especially some of its mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, had deleterious effects. His mishandling of health care reform in 1993 and 1994 had broad ramifications, both politically and policy wise. It seems likely that he could have achieved something like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 in 1993 or 1994 with broad bipartisan majorities. 

One could also criticize the sequence in which he pursued his policy agenda—had he led with welfare reform, might he a) have achieved a more liberal bill and b) earned political currency to use on liberal priorities like healthcare reform? 

He also obfuscated or downright lied about his beliefs on issues such as gay marriage for political reasons—hardly a profile in courage. 

Additionally, Clinton's foreign policy earned low marks.  His mishandling of crises in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti early in his term spurred serious repercussions. In this regard, Clinton displayed as little understanding of the developing world as most of his predecessors. He also disastrously failed to address the magnitude of the brewing terrorism crisis, which, of course, would reveal itself on September 11th, 2001. 

Finally, impeachment cast a pall over Clinton's second term. In fact, historian Steven Gillon revealed that Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich might have achieved reforms to the entitlement programs but for impeachment driving both towards their respective bases. 

Leadership wise, Clinton's fantastic ability to connect with average voters and to communicate policy in understandable terms counts as a great strength of his presidency. 

Tier 3: 

Ronald Reagan— I toyed with elevating Reagan to the second tier. His ability to change the public philosophy by inveighing against government with a smile had profound repercussions that we still feel today. Whether one champions or abhors this impact, it denotes Reagan's significance in American history. 

Reagan also deserves ample credit for giving Mikhail Gorbachev the American partner that he needed to implement glasnot and perestroika, which eventually ended the Cold War. 

Reagan's sunny optimism, charisma, and tremendous leadership skills had salubrious effects on the country and its psyche, repairing the damage from the disastrous 1970s. 

Nonetheless, two significant black marks reduce Reagan to the third tier. First, his administration suffered from substantial corruption (according to Haynes Johnson 138 Reagan officials were convicted, indicted, or investigated for criminal corruption). The Iran-Contra scandal towers above the other episodes of corruption in the Reagan administration, but it signifies a far broader problem. Reagan's reputation also ought to take a hit for the Savings and Loan crisis that developed on his watch and cost the government billions. 

Reagan's management style allowed this corruption to flourish. Those who portray him as clueless, disengaged, or unaware improperly ignore the recollection of many who worked with and for Reagan. But he did tend to leave details to subordinates, so long as they respected his overall goals. This style created an opening for untoward behavior by less scrupulous subordinates. 

Perhaps more significantly, Reagan's thirst for tax cuts, combined with his unwillingness (or inability) to force attendant spending cuts propelled the deficit to new heights. This lack of discipline imposed constraints on his successors from both parties. It also represented an unwillingness to level with the public about the tough choices that needed to be made in the area of fiscal and social policy. 

Internationally, Reagan (like most of his predecessors and successors) mishandled the Middle East (and the rest of the developing word) leading to problems both during his presidency and down the line. 

His sharp ideological agenda, albeit coated with a genial tone, bitterly fragmented the American public. While many remember Reagan fondly today, he left office with a middling fifty-three percent approval rating, ushering in an era of sharp polarization.

He was not the ideologue that many right-wing conservatives lionize—Reagan could and did compromise on many occasions, producing massive achievements including tax reform and shoring up the financial footing for Social Security. But he certainly ushered in a newfound era of ideologically driven leadership that damaged the country. 

Barack Obama—If one wants to see a conservative sputter with fury, he or she need only to mention President Obama. Conservatives vehemently contend that the current president scores atrociously on all metrics. Their perspective is misguided, warped by passionate policy disagreements. Nonetheless, their perspective does disqualify Obama from one of the two higher tiers. Why? 

Because unlike Reagan, Obama did not set about to change the public philosophy or reinvigorate the belief that government could and should be a force for good in society. Instead, as Suzanne Mettler has explained, he worked within the preexisting ideological frameworks to achieve longstanding liberal goals. 

Historian Brian Balogh has argued that this strategy represents the best method for achieving liberal goals. Nonetheless, by conceding an anti-government framework, Obama made it nearly impossible to achieve greater consensus in favor of his initiatives. He never triumphed in the ideas war or converted people to his general philosophy—which limited his ceiling in terms of greatness. 

His sometimes aloof style, and communications pratfalls during his first term also reduce his rating. 

Nonetheless, Obama rates far closer to the top two tiers of presidents than the bottom. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act stands as a signature accomplishment—presidents dating back a century, and including even the Republican Richard Nixon, battled for universal health care coverage. They failed. Obama achieved this goal, however imperfect the legislation. 

He also succeeded in enacting substantial financial reform legislation that included longstanding liberal goals, and he triumphed over the powerful banking industry by reforming a flawed student loan program.

While conservatives flog these pieces of legislation, they ignore the fact that Obama campaigned on these issues, and simply (and refreshingly) delivered on his promises. If anything, their anger ought to be directed to the American people who provided a clear mandate for these bills in 2008. 

Under Obama's stewardship, the economy has improved, and in spite of confronting an intransigent and hostile Congress for the latter three quarters of his tenure, he has accomplished scores of other goals.

While some argue that he should have been more open to compromising with the rigidly conservative GOP, most objective observers, such as the scholar Norman Ornstein, realize how fanciful such claims are. Obama could and should have cultivated better relationships with members of Congress. Nonetheless, given the ideological gulf and the current electoral climate, it's unlikely that better relations would have produced many great achievements. 

Internationally, Obama has confronted situations without a good solution (such as the current quagmire in Syria). Nonetheless, he realized that the go-it-alone cowboyism of the previous administration poisoned the well with governments and publics all over the globe. He strove to work more collaboratively, and understood the war fatigue in the United States.

He resists the tendency to oversimplify issues or to resort to shameful rhetorical excesses—understanding the global context in which his words will be received. 

Unless and until his critics can articulate better solutions for dealing with Iran and Syria, we ought to acknowledge that Obama is simply playing a rotten hand dealt to him because of innumerable mistakes made by his predecessors from both parties. 

Tier 4: This tier includes two presidents who scholars have generally regarded as great. I consider both to be overrated for the reasons outlined below. 

Harry Truman—Scholars traditionally shower Truman with accolades for being a great president. I respectfully disagree with that reverential label. My reasoning stems from new research that corrects earlier assessments about the outbreak of the Cold War. 

Traditional thinking blamed Stalin's insecurity, insanity, and aggressive behavior for the Cold War. Under this thinking, Truman deserves credit for adopting the containment strategy crafted by George Kennan, preventing the outbreak of hot war, and displaying steely firmness in dealing with the ruthless dictator.

New scholarship, however, recognizes that while Stalin deserves some blame, Truman's black and white thinking, his deep insecurity, and several grave miscalculations helped to rupture the grand wartime alliance. They produced a Cold War that distorted and shaped foreign policy decision making for the next half century—often with disastrous consequences. 

Truman's simplistic approach set the terms of the conflict, and forestalled the development of more nuanced thinking that might have prevented countless foreign policy blunders in future decades. 

While Truman proposed many potentially historic policies in the realms of civil rights and the social safety net, he typically rocketed headlong into an intransigent Congress that scorned and rejected most of these proposals. Perhaps the most significant piece of domestic legislation passed during Truman's tenure, the anti-labor Taft-Hartley bill, vaulted into the statute book over his veto. 

He also failed to prevent (and to some degree fed) the hysteria about Communism that precipitated red-baiting and destroyed the lives of countless Americans. 

Finally, a personal pet peeve—Truman's policy of appointing cronies to the Supreme Court produced four mediocre to poor appointments. 

We ought to applaud substantial achievements like the audacious Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe, and the desegregation of the military. 

Yet, unless one considers Truman's handling of the rising Soviet Union to be brilliant or visionary, he simply cannot be receive the moniker of great president. 

Dwight Eisenhower— Eisenhower certainly did some good—his warning about the military industrial complex, for example, has proven to be perspicacious, even visionary. He also accepted the great achievements of the New Deal, including Social Security, which provided stability for the country and for which he deserves credit.

I also award Eisenhower high marks for his willingness to dispatch federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas. Not only did he compel the city to integrate its schools and comply with court orders, but Eisenhower also unmistakably conveyed that states could not defy federal courts. His emphasis on a balanced budget, and his resistance to overspending on military systems also stands in positive contrast to his successors. 

Finally, four of his five Supreme Court appointments proved to be excellent, even if two, Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justice William Brennan, proved to be far more liberal than Ike desired. 

Eisenhower, however, failed in other areas. On two of the greatest moral questions of the day—Civil Rights and the noxious antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy—he achieved, at best, middling grades. While Eisenhower supported Civil Rights legislation, his support epitomized ambivalence and he sympathized far too much with the South to be considered morally right on the issue (in stark contrast to his Attorney General Herbert Brownell).

Even in the case of Little Rock, he refused to trumpet the moral rectitude of his actions, which might have reimagined the landscape on Civil Rights. While one cannot characterize his views as supporting segregation or retrograde, he certainly lacked passion for the fight for civil rights. 

With regard to McCarthy, Eisenhower loathed the senator, but again he refrained from open and full-throated condemnation at an early date. Given his standing as a Republican and a war hero, a moral smackdown of McCarthy might have prevented great damage to the country. 

Additionally, Eisenhower invited historians' scorn by allowing his foreign policy team to green light the CIA's role in the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected government. This authorization, which President Truman explicitly refused to give, produced disastrous future consequences. This action soured Iranian opinion on the United States, and necessitated supporting a dictator for the next quarter century, whose actions eventually spawned the current theocratic regime.

Similarly, many forget that it was Eisenhower, not Kennedy or Johnson, who sent the first American personnel to Vietnam beginning the long, disastrous American involvement in that country. Like his predecessor and his successors, the overly simplistic Cold War binary dictated terrible decisions with regard to the developing world that have had long lasting consequences. 

Tier 5: This tier includes the two hardest presidents to rank. Both achieved massive accomplishments, but both had giant blots that reduce their standing. 

Lyndon Johnsonif one simply graded presidents on domestic policy achievements, Johnson would be in the top five all time. Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stand among his staggering and voluminous policy achievements.

Johnson's unparalleled understanding of how the legislative process worked, and when to insert himself into deliberations and when to step back, undoubtedly contributed to this flurry of legislative productivity. His smooth handling of the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination also accrues to his credit. 

Unfortunately for Johnson, international affairs represents the second piece of a president's legacy. On this count, his mark is nothing short of disastrous. Johnson dramatically escalated an unwinnable war in Vietnam out of a political fear of being castigated for "losing Vietnam" (as Republican critics lambasted Harry Truman for losing China).

This regrettable decision not only had broad foreign policy ramifications, but slowly strangled Johnson's Great Society by depriving domestic programs of funding. Many of Johnson's programs never had a chance to blossom, as Vietnam voraciously consumed ever increasing portions of the federal budget. 

The war also fractured the American public, and created the devastating credibility gap that left the American people hesitant to trust the government to serve as a positive force in American society. 

Richard Nixon— Nixon the policy president would deserve a place far higher on this list. He achieved much in domestic policy, and possessed a deft touch in foreign affairs that led to rapprochement with China, detente with the Soviet Union, and other achievements. 

But, simply put, one cannot consider a president great, or even good, when he a) committed crimes worthy of impeachment (Nixon escaped the ignominy of impeachment by resigning in disgrace), b) employed bitterly divisive tactics and rhetoric that shamelessly encouraged the fracturing of the American polity and c) had utter disregard for the separation of powers and the primacy of law in the American system.

Thus, Nixon finds himself on the cusp of the basement in these rankings, saved solely by his policy achievements. 

Gerald Ford— Initially, I intended to elevate Ford one more tier. But the more I thought about what I've written about the other presidents, the more it seemed impossible to rank Ford more highly.

Ford was a man of integrity who inherited the presidency under trying circumstances. Having never been elected as President or Vice President, he possessed virtually no mandate. He also governed during the tumultuous decade of the 1970s when crisis and catastrophe challenged American leaders of all stripes. 

Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon represented a true profile in courage. Highly unpopular at the time, the decision spared the nation from having to experience the trauma of trying a former president for his crimes (which would have created a three ring circus). He also deserves credit for staunch advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment, and for his refusal to muzzle outspoken First Lady Betty Ford. 

I also rate Ford's handling of international affairs highly. He continued many of Nixon's successful policies, and resisted the increasingly conservative currents of foreign policy thought in his own party. 

But Ford struggled to handle the difficulties of the 1970s every bit as much as his successor, Jimmy Carter, would. He didn't become the butt of jokes on the emerging satirical program Saturday Night Live without reason. His Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign, for example, proved largely ineffectual, if not pathetic. Ford failed to tackle the burgeoning problems plaguing the economy, instead handing them off to the equally blunder-prone Carter. 

One has to strain to recall policy achievements for Ford. His was more a rearguard action, aimed at preventing large Democratic majorities (especially after the 1974 midterm elections) from enacting policies noxious to business interests and conservatives. He wielded his veto pen frequently, albeit without being unwilling to compromise. 

But, overall, this record makes it hard to elevate Ford any higher. 


Tier 6: 

Jimmy Carter—a good, decent, intelligent man who proved to be a disastrous president. Fate dealt Carter the presidential equivalent of a five touchdown deficit (i.e. an atrocious hand). Even the best of presidents would have struggled with the situation facing Carter. 

Yet, gifted ample Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Carter proved inept at working with the legislative branch to address the most significant problems of the tumultuous decade of the 1970s. Trapped between ideological liberals and rising conservative voices, Carter's clumsy attempts to find the middle pleased no one. 

Even some of his greatest achievements—In the realm of deregulation for example—have a mixed long term legacy. 

Internationally, Carter deserves substantial credit for the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaties. They foreshadowed Carter's future as maybe America's greatest ex-president for his diplomatic and humanitarian work. Conversely, however, his mishandling of the tumult in Iran proved disastrous and precipitated the crippling hostage crisis that contributed to Carter's 1980 defeat. 

On the leadership metric, Carter failed abysmally as well. Unlike Kennedy or Reagan, who urged Americans to dream and achieve, Carter's famous "malaise" speech did nothing but perpetuate and exacerbate the doldrums that plagued the country. While diagnostically accurate, this speech failed to offer the hope necessary to spur a recovery. As Reagan proved, Carter's scolding was the opposite of what Americans craved in that difficult moment. 

George W. Bush—one could envision a scenario under which Bush soared to heights that exceeded his father's achievements. After all, he could have used the split decision in the 2000 election to hew to the center, building upon the bipartisan achievements of his father and President Clinton. Such action would have fulfilled his promise to be a uniter, not a divider, and would have acknowledged the deep divisions in the country. 

On some level, the impulse for this sort of presidency existed within Bush, as evidenced by his expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit, and his passion for immigration reform. He also gladly partnered with the liberal lion Ted Kennedy on education reform. 

Yet, Bush most frequently chose a bitterly divisive course, reminiscent more of Reagan than his father.

Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11th redirected his focus towards foreign affairs, Bush muscled through the first of two huge tax cuts that took the country from surplus to massive deficits. His ideological predilection for deregulation and lax oversight (administered by highly sympathetic regulators) contributed significantly to the economic crisis in 2008. 

Every so often, Bush feinted towards the middle (No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D), as he tried to implement "compassionate conservatism." But he quickly moved back to the ideological right in each case—a prime example being his attempt to utilize whatever political capital he gained from his 2004 reelection to introduce private accounts into Social Security instead of pursuing immigration reform. 

Yet, ironically, in spite of his conservatism (and demonstrating the increasingly rigid and extreme demands of the conservative movement), Bush impressively managed to infuriate the ideological right with his fiscal stewardship of the country. 

In foreign affairs, Bush's decision to invade Iraq proved to be a blunder of epic proportions of the same caliber as Johnson's decision to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. More broadly, Bush infuriated America's allies with his cavalier attitude and his smugness, engendered hatred from around the world, and created a power vacuum that groups like the Islamic State happily filled. 

Bush also must be adjudicated negatively, along with Clinton, for failing to heed warnings about the risk of terrorism. While only the harshest ideologues and partisans blame him for 9/11, both he and Clinton failed to prevent the attacks by crippling Al Qaeda's operational capacity. 

Politically, Bush's decision to bless a strategy of exciting the conservative base in advance of his 2004 reelection campaign further fractured the country, shamelessly supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in an attempt to drive conservatives to the polls. 

Many on the left scorn Bush's appointment of countless conservative Court of Appeals judges, as well as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. I disagree. Most of these judges, especially the two Supreme Court Justices, possess ample qualifications.

To me, their appointments represent the consequences of Bush's victories. Bush lavished praise on Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas during his campaigns. He left little mystery as to the type of judges he would appoint. As such, if liberals wished to forestall such appointments, they should have won the 2004 presidential election. 

Overall, the presidents since World War II have been a solid, if unspectacular, group. The vast majority achieved average to good status, even if none reached the elite pantheon of visionaries who Americans will forever celebrate. 

How Did the Republican Party Become So Divided?

    The Republican Party is a mess. Trying to replace Speaker John Boehner produced a month long drama, full of accusations, recriminations, and verbal warfare. Even if Paul Ryan (R-WI) temporarily binds the party’s wounds, the bitter presidential primary and countless upcoming legislative debates (on entitlements, government spending, and cultural issues) threaten to rip them open again. To quote Taylor Swift, band aides don’t fix bullet holes. 

    How did things get to this point? An answer requires but 4 words: rhetoric and its consequences.

    For decades, elected Republicans from Strom Thurmond to Barry Goldwater to Newt Gingrich delighted in throwing rhetorical red meat to base voters, and using increasingly shrill and apocalyptic language to describe government, Democrats, and compromise. Even fairly moderate Republicans like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush shamelessly employed similarrhetoric that often differed from the polices that they pursued. 

    Their verbal assaults portrayed Washington as an unseemly sinners’ den full of craven politicians who ignored the wishes of voters, and worked to “steal” money from hardworking Americans. Perhaps worst of all, Washington suffered from leftist groupthink. 

    These politicians transformed mere ownership of homes in Washington into abandoning the values that once warranted support from voters. Such charges toppled congressional luminaries, including Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) in 2004. 

    Indeed, candidates and elected officials crafted this rhetoric for political advantage. Fiery one-liners and hyperbolic characterizations drew attention, and shaped clear distinctions between the parties.

    Famously, Gingrich stoked an ethics war, aiming to destroy the House of Representatives in order to gain control of the chamber after decades in the wilderness. Thrusting aside previous norms of decorum, he bombarded Democrats with brutal charges, portraying himself as engaged in a “civil war.” He used a political action committee to train legions of candidates to employ similar tactics. 

    To a degree, Gingrich and his peers walled off politics from governing. They knew how to cut deals to keep the government operational, while moving policy in a conservative direction. 

    Politically, this rhetoric aided in the capture of the White House in 1980 (arguably, Reagan was the first conservative president since Herbert Hoover), Congress in 1994, and the House of Representatives in 2010. Overall, Democrats have only had complete control of the government for 4 of the last 35 years. 

    Yet, the cynical utilization of fire-breathing language had a drawback—a lot of everyday voters took it seriously. They came to believe that government was every bit as evil as the politicians claimed it to be. Every Democrat had radical, ominous designs, and even the most conservatively designed government programs opened the door to socialism. 

    Demonizing Democrats and declaring government to be the problem (as Ronald Reagan did) transformed compromise into an increasingly dirty word among Republican primary voters—today compromising is treasonous. Thus, conservatives howled, first in frustration, and later in rage, as supposedly conservative Republicans from Reagan to Gingrich to both Presidents Bush reached landmark accords with Democrats that violated their principles. 

    George H.W. Bush even famously promised "Read my lips, no new taxes," at the 1988 Republican Convention before eventually reversing course and reaching a bipartisan budget agreement that set the course towards a balanced budget (a conservative goal). Many on the right, however, branded him a liar, an apostate, or worse.

    Almost cyclically, this rhetoric propelled new classes of increasingly conservative outsiders into office in wave elections in 1980, 1994, 2010, and 2014. Each time the newly minted legislators vowed that Washington would not corrupt them (unlike their predecessors). Many refused to move their families to Washington, instead traveling home each weekend. Some (including Speaker Ryan) even resorted to sleeping in their offices to demonstrate frugality and avoid "going Washington."

    Each cycle raised expectations among conservatives—pragmatic impulses became increasingly dubious in their eyes. They trusted that, if elected, Republican candidates would deliver on a wish list of conservative policies that blithely ignored political reality. Most of these policies had no greater chance of enactment than the Michigan punter does of forgetting the nightmare ending to last month’s Michigan State game. 

    Republicans have had unilateral control of government for just 4.5 out of the last 59 years, and even then, they never had more than 55 Senate seats. This predicament left moderate Democratic senators (whose defection could end a filibuster) controlling the fate of the Republican agenda. 

    Beginning in 1988, a new phenomenon fed this process—conservative media. Media maestros like Rush Limbaugh quickly became Republican coalition leaders.

    Yet, they possessed fundamentally different goals from elected Republican leaders. Rather than prioritizing building a big tent party and governing, they aimed to produce the best content possible, to remain authentic, and to connect with consumers.

    Bold content, firm convictions, incendiary language, and controversial screeds produced great radio and television. By contrast, governing required nuance and compromise, and trying to explain the legislative process could put even paying students to sleep, let alone consumers with ever increasing media choices. Thus, hosts dressed their ideas in colorful language and fed rhetorical fires; over time, their sermons reaffirmed the instincts of many conservatives to demand purity.

    Often when Republicans faced responsibility for governing, conservative entertainers had a greater synergy of purpose with outsiders, who aimed to purify the party, than with insiders trying to govern. Outsiders promised conflict, accusations of betrayal, and other invective that produced compelling content. By contrast, insiders offered explanations and excuses that threatened to bore and exasperate listeners. Hosts simply cared about what would generate the best ratings and the most advertising revenue. 

    Conservative media pressured politicians to promise things that they could not possibly deliver (such as abolishing Obamacare while President Obama remained in office). 

    The rise of conservative media further ensnared Republicans, leaving them increasingly navigating treacherous waters—not doing things so irresponsible as to permanently damage the party or the economy (like failing to raise the debt ceiling), while simultaneously demonstrating sufficient loyalty to principle to satisfy an increasingly high bar for purity.

    Especially as primary elections became the major locus of electoral competition in a geographically polarized country, politicians had to mind their base and its media champions, or risk defeat. Incendiary rhetoric proved to be boon in primary elections, even as it began to damage Republicans in general elections. 

    New media (talk radio, cable news, and the blogosphere) and social media also empowered relatively junior, extreme members of Congress (like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)), who in earlier generations would have had minimal power and no megaphone, to pressure leadership into adopting stances that often offered no way to save face. 

    While Democrats, too, employed hyperbolic rhetoric, they refrained from attacking compromise. Their ideology helped in this regard; as the pro-government party, Democrats had to prioritize functional government over ideological purity to at least some extent. Dysfunctional government threatened their claim that government could be a force for good in society. 

    Republicans, however, had no such brake. Decades of promising a conservative panacea, and vilifying government and Democrats left them bitterly divided, with little maneuverability and doubt as to whether they can govern. Moving forward, more realistic rhetoric poses substantial risks in Republican primary elections (as evidenced by the success of the most rhetorically extreme candidate in the Republican presidential primary field), but continuing down their current path threatens a descent into electoral oblivion.

The Bloodletting at Philadelphia's Newspapers

The bloodletting at Philadelphia's two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News (and their web sibling Philly.com), compels me to repost a blog from last year on the societal risk of the persistent cutbacks in journalism, both broadcast and print. 

Today, nearly fifty top notch journalists, editors, producers, and photojournalists lost their jobs—a boon only to politicians looking to cheat, sports teams looking to hide things, and citizens who want to live in ignorance about their society. 

The media trend away from hard reporting, and opinion rooted in reporting and facts, and towards blogging, and "infotainment" runs the risk of a society where people have opinions based solely on misinformation.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of smart, capable bloggers, pundits, and talk radio hosts, who play a valuable role in society. In many cases, they've introduced fresh methods, concepts, and issues into the national dialogue. 

But even these personalities suffer from newsroom reductions. Most good bloggers and hosts consume large quantities of journalism to provide ideas and background for their shows and blogs. Your favorite talk radio host or blogger would not have material every morning if newspapers and their digital counterparts ceased to exist. 

Even people who see little value in traditional newspapers in a digital age utilize their reporting—sometimes without knowing it. For example, when you set your fantasy lineup or make a trade, the decision is often informed by reporting on player utilization and injuries. 

It is even more troubling that the default method of dealing with the progressive loss of revenue in the news business seems to be layoffs that hollow out the product. Layoffs should be an absolute last resort. Instead, Philly Media Network, the company that owns the Daily News, the Inquirer, and Philly.com, never tried outside the box ideas to improve revenue before resorting to drastic cutbacks. 

In a country where public radio and public television survive (and even thrive) partially thanks to contributions from consumers, why don't newspapers try such a model? Many people believe that their local papers (whether they read them in print or online) are public trusts. They might be willing to contribute to keep the product from being weakened. 

Alternatively, what about a model like ESPN Insider or the New York Times Select that offers supplemental content for a digital subscription fee? 

Or perhaps a model based on music streaming services. Content would be available for free only if readers sit through advertisements that cannot be avoided. Alternatively, however, subscribers to a variety of plans could access ad free digital content. Instead of a one size fits all paywall, let readers interested solely in sports pay less for access to just sports content, while political junkies pay for a political package, etc. 

Countless other ideas exist that might increase revenue and reduce the need to cut costs. Especially in an era of social media, in which readers can interact with their favorite writers and columnists, layoffs threaten far more harm than good. 

Indeed, Philly Media Network damaged their product, destroyed morale, and turned off countless consumers whose favorite writers got fired. Everyone who cares about an informed citizenry and good journalism lost today. 

Fans of talented journalists like the baseball writers Ryan Lawrence and Jake Kaplan, and Vinny Vella and Dana DiFillippo from the crime beat, can only shake their heads in disgust and sadness because management lacked the creativity to seek other solutions first. 


The Debate We Ought to Have

I had a startling realization while reading a thought provoking blog post from Republican strategist Mindy Finn dissecting Hillary Clinton's debate answer on paid leave policies. 

At the core of many of our economic debates regarding minimum wage, paid leave, mandatory health benefits, and other regulations is a question that we almost never (if ever) debate.

The conservative argument in many of these debates is gee, it would be nice for people to have these things, but stop living in a fantasy land liberals. If government mandates them, we'll force small businesses to cut employees or go out of business, and we'll do real damage to the economy. 

Liberals talk around this argument—they discuss the necessity of a living wage, the way that all other industrialized countries have laws mandating many of these benefits, etc. 

To a large degree, both sides are right.

To pay for new benefits or higher wages, businesses either have to charge consumers more, or if that is not possible, provide such benefits to fewer employees. While some businesses might generate sufficient profit to cover new perks, it seems safe to assume that others would, in fact, have to resort to cutting workers. 

Liberals are also correct that, while it's nice to imagine that a competition for employees will produce businesses voluntarily adopting better compensation packages, in many fields a surplus of workers exists. They are also right that many salaries (or hourly wages) are inadequate, and that the lack of certain benefits places a real hardship upon workers. 

Which brings us to the debate that we really ought to be engaging in as a society: should the goal of our economic policies be to maximize the number of jobs created, or should it be to create fewer, but better, jobs? 

Liberals ought to acknowledge that forcing businesses to adopt greater benefits will lead to a reduction in the workforce. Conservatives ought to acknowledge that sparing businesses from such mandates will lead to more jobs, but jobs that often do not enable people to make ends meet. 

Rather than arguing in circles about individual policy issues (which are important in their own right), we ought to ponder this bigger question that shapes the answers to policy questions. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. 

Without an answer to this question, however, we're left to talk past each other on many issues. This muddles the situation for voters and policymakers, and frees politicians to resort to pie in the sky sophistry. 

How to Address Gun Violence

I hate writing or thinking about this topic because it means that more innocent people have senselessly lost their lives due to gun violence. 

It's even more painful that no one seems to be searching for a solution to this very real problem. We scream past each other about mental illness, gun control, and other topics without anyone proposing any new solutions for combatting the endless  parade of mass shootings. 

I admit to believing that better regulation of firearms possession ought to be part of a solution. We also need better mental health care; sadly, given that we don't exactly have an exemplary healthcare system as it is, it seems unlikely that we even understand HOW we might improve the mental health system, let alone actually implementing such a solution. 

With regard to gun control or, perhaps more aptly described, firearms regulation, both gun control proponents and opponents need a reality check. 

Gun owners and gun rights proponents ought to understand several things—first, every proposal for tighter regulation of firearms is NOT some sort of backdoor scheme to take away their guns. America has a deep and longstanding tradition of firearms ownership and use, and trying to ban even handguns would be both impractical and unfair to the millions of law abiding gun owners. 

Second, none of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights are absolute and unlimited. You can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater and cause a panic. Public safety and health require reasonable infringements upon all of our rights for the common good. 

The Second Amendment ought not be different than the First Amendment (or any of the other amendments for that matter). Jurists ought to scrutinize restrictions, but reasonable limitations are permissible and sensible. 

Given that, it's absurd to think that it is easier to get and use a deadly weapon than it is to get alcohol (highly restricted), marijuana (totally illegal in 48 states), or even a car. Some states prohibit alcohol sales after a certain time of day. Others still have blue laws on the books that prevent alcohol sales on Sunday. No one under 21 can buy alcohol. Every car owner needs to register their cars and have them inspected yearly. The list of restrictions goes on and on. 

Third—reasonable restrictions on firearm purchases can save lives. Refusal to at least explore the options (and do research on the cause of firearm fatalities) undoubtedly leads to the loss of life every day in the United States. 

On the left, gun control proponents similarly have faults. First, the time has come to look for new solutions. As much as one gun per month legislation, expanded background checks for all gun purchases, and an assault weapons ban may sound reasonable, the politics of these proposals has become fraught. Even more importantly, there is little evidence that any of them would have prevented any of the recent mass shootings. 

In most recent cases, the perpetrators legally purchased the firearms utilized in these tragedies, passed a background check, and followed all applicable state and federal laws for gun purchases. 

Second, America has a deep culture of firearms possession and usage. We need to respect gun owners, and find a way to convince them that we're not out to take their guns away. How would you feel if you had done nothing wrong, and felt as though segments of society sought to revoke your ability to possess something that you enjoyed using or that provided you with reassurance? 

If gun owners feel less under attack, it might be easier to get them to consider supporting reasonable restrictions on gun purchases. At the very least, they might be less willing to vote on the issue, which might encourage politicians to support such restrictions. 

Third, the debate over whether the Constitution protects an individual right to bear arms ought to be over. As a historian, it's tempting to immerse myself in the debate, and marshall all the historical arguments as to why the Supreme Court got the Constitution's intent wrong. But doing so would be highly hypocritical. 

Most liberals believe in a living Constitution that must be interpreted anew with time in order to keep up with modern circumstances. It is how we justify the propriety of many the Warren's Court's liberal decisions. We scorn Antonin Scalia for his rigid originalism (i.e. deciding cases based upon the original intent of the framers of the Constitution). 

If so, we can't possibly trot out our own originalism solely because we don't like gun rights. You can't have two sets of rules for Constitutional interpretation (one for rights that you like, one for rights that you don't). 

After stipulating all of these facts on both sides, I'll offer a proposal. We ought to consider limiting the ability of people under 30 to purchase firearms. 

There is ample precedent for limiting rights or behavior based upon age. Americans can't drive until 16, they can't vote until 18, and they can't drink (legally) until 21. We even restrict something as benign as the ability to rent a car by age. Society acknowledges that cognitive development is slow. Thus, actions and activities that might be appropriate for older adults are not appropriate for younger adults. 

Far more importantly, think about the mass shootings from the recent past—almost every shooter, if not every single shooter, is a young, disillusioned male with a track record of some warning signs. If we cannot create a mental health system sufficient to help these troubled souls before they do something catastrophic, wouldn't it make sense to try to keep firearms away from them?

Ideally, such a proposal should just apply to men since there are very few (if any?) mass shootings carried out by women. Given the Supreme Court's posture towards legislation that affects people differently because of gender or applies solely to one gender, this may or may not be legally possible. 

I also don't think that an outright prohibition of gun ownership for young people is ideal. Many, many young people are fully capable of handling firearms and possessing them without posing a threat to anyone else. 

As such, some sort of enhanced background check or mental health screening for a young person looking to buy a gun seems to occupy a sweet spot between overly restrictive and not sufficiently tough to achieve the objective. Germany has a similar system, though with a cutoff age of 25.  

Such a proposal is narrowly tailored and might assuage those gun owners fearful that gun control proponents spend every waking minute trying to conceive of ways to take their guns away (i.e. that everything related to gun purchase restrictions is a slippery slope). It also would not affect the lives of most gun owners, which might lessen political opposition. 

Whether such a system is practical is another question. We might need to resort to prohibiting firearms purchases or possession for people under a certain age (note that I didn't say usage—no one should desire to prevent anyone from hunting with family) simply because the resources don't exist for the sort of advanced screenings that I envision. 

What are the politics of this issue? Sadly, gun control legislation won't be possible at a national level unless and until gun control proponents demonstrate some political might.

As background, after mass shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Congress passed an Assault Weapons Ban and the Brady Bill. Many Democrats who voted for that legislation felt the wrath of the NRA in the 1994 Congressional elections. A mythos arose that votes in favor of this legislation cost many members of Congress their seats (the veracity of this belief is almost besides the point—politicians believe it)

Subsequently, especially for Republicans, the whims of the extremist National Rifle Association became sacrosanct, and Democrats shied away from really forcing the issue out of political fear. Gun control groups must become a political counterweight to the NRA if they hope to change that calculus. 

To do so, they must defeat several opponents of gun control to make legislators rethink the politics of the issue. Additionally, people who think that greater gun control is a good idea need to vote accordingly. They can't say gee, my congressman is wrong on gun control, but he's right on taxes, or agriculture, or government spending, so I'll vote for him. 

That posture delivered us to the current situation—politicians believe that only those Americans who oppose gun control vote on the issue. As a result, legislators believe that voting against gun control (or not even allowing a vote) poses no risk, while supporting it could cost them votes. 

The alternative to gun control proponents voting on the issue is that, politically, new gun control measures will remain out of reach no matter how many Americans lose their lives. 



Why John Boehner Should Use Democratic Support to Maintain Power

House Speaker John Boehner should respond to threats of an overthrow from the extreme right in the Republican caucus (the House Freedom Caucus) by being open to relying upon Democrats for the support necessary to remain speaker. 

First some procedural background: if House conservatives offer a motion to vacate the chair (i.e. to depose Boehner from the Speakership), the entire House would vote on the motion, and Boehner would need 218 votes to survive. If he received less, the speakership would remain vacant (and the House paralyzed) until another candidate could secure 218 votes in an election. 

Thus, Boehner could afford to lose the far right members who have frequently challenged him and disrupted his plans over the last 5 years if he secured enough support from Democrats to maintain 218 votes on the motion to vacate the chair (alternatively, if Democrats abstain from the vote in large numbers, it would dramatically increase the number of Republicans that had to vote against Boehner to depose him because the motion requires a majority to succeed).

CNN's Manu Raju reported that many House Democrats would be willing to consider saving Boehner's speakership in exchange for some unspecified concessions on his part. Boehner would be wise to take them up on their offer.

Doing so makes more sense than trying to pacify the ultraconservatives who seem to have little conception of what is possible under divided government. They have made it highly difficult for Boehner to govern, and given the string of major deadlines approaching for Congress, it seems impossible to both appease them and keep the government functioning.

Relying on Democrats to maintain his Speakership would undoubtedly infuriate these conservatives and their allies at interest groups and in the conservative media. But, if Boehner is thinking pragmatically, that potential reaction should not bother him for 2 key reasons. 

First, at the end of this Congress, the sixty-five year old Boehner will have served as Speaker for 3 Congresses (6 years). Only eight men in history have served more than 3 terms as Speaker (Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, Joe Cannon, James "Champ" Clark, Sam Rayburn, John MacCormack, Thomas P "Tip" O'Neil, and J. Dennis Hastert).

With the exception of the legendary Rayburn, no man has served more than 5 full terms as Speaker (O'Neil served five terms, Clay served 4 non-continuous full terms and 2 partial ones, MacCormack 4 full terms and 1 partial term, Canon, Clark, and Hastert 4 terms, and Stevensen 3 full terms and 1 partial one). 

Thus, historical precedent indicates that Boehner would be highly unlikely to serve more than 1 more term as Speaker (and definitely no more than 2) after this Congress. Boehner has also seen retirement rumors swirl around him over the past few years as his closest friends in Congress have departed

With each passing year, Boehner has also faced increasing headaches in managing the fractious Republican caucus. When asked why Boehner would want to remain Speaker, friend and ally Mike Simpson (R-ID) laughed and told Roll Call, '"That's the question."'

All of this indicates that Boehner has little to fear in terms of political repercussions from courting Democratic support. He's not likely to run too many (if any) more campaigns in his conservative Ohio Congressional district. As a result, the political risk posed to him by extreme conservatives or antagonized activists would be relatively minimal. 

Additionally, Boehner is at the point in his career where he is likely considering what his legacy will be. Given divided government, Boehner must have bipartisan support to accomplish any significant legislation of the kind that would burnish his legacy. To pass a law, he needs either President Obama's signature or the support of enough Democrats in both houses of Congress to override a veto. 

In practical terms, that means that any major legislation is going to incorporate some Democratic ideas and priorities. Boehner cannot simply pass conservative legislation with the support of the 218 most conservative members of the House without running into President Obama's veto power.

Thus, relying on Democratic votes to maintain the Speakership seems to present little downside for Boehner. Any concessions that he would make to his Democratic saviors are unlikely to be more significant than the concessions that he would have to make to get President Obama's signature on legislation (or to procure enough Democratic support for a bill to override a veto). 

Even if he grants votes on Democratic priorities that would not otherwise receive a vote in a Republican-led House, those agenda items (things like increased domestic spending) might still die at any number of choke points in the legislative process (on the House floor, in conference committee, in the Senate, etc). Alternatively, because of the president's role in the legislative process, they might end up in the statute books regardless of whether Boehner granted them votes in the House. 

One might argue that John Boehner, loyal party man, would recoil from dividing his party and surviving with Democratic votes. While this is undoubtedly true, one could also argue that achieving legislative accomplishments is the best way to prove that Republicans can govern and, thus, to maintain control of Congress. 

An additional benefit to a survival plan that involved receiving support from, say, the 200 most centrist Republicans and 20-25 most moderate Democrats, would be that Boehner would no longer have to face the most conservative House Republicans humiliating him, or undermining his power. Effectively they would be neutered on most votes because their support would not be essential, and their biggest weapon (to threaten to depose Boehner) would be useless. 

About the only practical downside that one could imagine to such a deal would be that Boenher would no longer be able to pass the most conservative legislation possible through the House in order to bolster his negotiating position with the more moderate Senate and President Obama. Additionally, he might risk losing Republican support for compromise legislation because the right might lead a concerted campaign to brand any Republican who votes for Boehner negotiated legislation as "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only). 

Perhaps the only true risk to Boehner would be that pragmatic House conservatives, who are likely as tired as of the antics of the House Freedom Caucus as Boehner is, might face withering pressure to abandon him or face reprisals, including potential primary challenges. If that happened, Boehner might not be able to get to 218 votes without substantial Democratic support. Relying on hundreds of Democrats to keep him in power would make Boehner's situation untenable.

Democrats would threaten to abandon him every time that he brought conservative legislation, supported by the majority of the House, to the floor. Alternatively, appease Democrats to too great of a degree, and Boehner would put his Republican backers in an impossible spot. He'd be held captive by both sides, and would effectively be a man without a country.

He might eventually lose the Speakership under such a scenario, as Republican support slowly bled away under assault from right wing groups and media personalities.

Unless Boehner fears this possibility, however, seeking Democratic support seems to make the most sense from the perspective of both his legacy and his ability to best manage the House and govern. The House Freedom Caucus members have been nothing but a thorn in his side over the past five years, and he has a real opportunity to neutralize their biggest threat and give himself some room to maneuver. 

Whether Boehner is sufficiently bold to take such dramatic action remains to be seen, but it would be in his own best interest. 

Iran Debate Shows Growing GOP Conservatism

Preface on the Substance of the Deal: 

The deal that the United States and its allies made with Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program is far from perfect. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that it was the best result that the United States could get from a bad situation (I've analogized it to being the big blind in Texas hold 'em and drawing a 2-7 off suit—sometimes folding, and losing your blind, is a good decision). 

Given American meddling in Iran during the 20th century with disastrous results for the Iranian people, military action to remove the theoretic government led by Ayatollah Khamenei would simply result in more hatred of the United States and potentially an even worse long term situation in Iran for American interests. 

Alas, given that the Iranian regime is not truly democratic (democratically elected officials have severely truncated powers), the true forces in the Iranian government aren't likely to be moved by sanctions that hurt the Iranian people unless they fear overthrow. 

Thus, absent regime change, a negotiated deal offered the best potential hope for curbing the Iranian nuclear program. As venerable Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) explain, there are no perfect nuclear deals.

What the Deal Tells Us About Today's Politics: 

Substance, aside, however, the debate over the Iran deal tells us a lot about historical changes in American politics over the last 37 years. 

Why do I mention the very specific number of 37 years? Because 37 years ago the Senate debated and ratified the Panama Canal treaties by the bare minimum of 1 vote.  

I see several parallels between the two debates. The American public disliked both the Panama Canal Treaties and the Iran deal. 

A CNN-ORC poll from August 15th indicated that 41% of those queried believed that Congress ought to approve the Iran Deal, while 56% believed that Congress should disapprove. Similarly, a Fox News poll found that only 31% of those polled would approve the deal if they were lawmakers, while 58% would disapprove. 

The polling on the Panama Canal Treaties is a bit less clear—several polls that described amendments that the Senate had added to the treaties indicated plurality or majority support for the treaties with these amendments included—but the majority of polling from March and April of 1978 indicated broad public disapproval (all polling data cited in this blog comes from the iPoll database). 

A March 1978 Harris poll found that 29% of those surveyed favored the Senate approving the 2nd Panama Canal treaty (which gave Panama control of the Canal after the year 2000), and 60% opposed Senate ratification.  An NBC/Associated Press poll from the same month placed those numbers at 35% in favor of ratification and 55% opposition. More broadly, an April CBS/New York Times poll asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of the treaties and found 30% approval and 53% disapproval. 

Additionally, both agreements faced virulent opposition from the right. Ronald Reagan's opposition to the United States relinquishing control of the Panama Canal played a key role in his furious comeback during the 1976 Republican Presidential primary (especially in the crucial North Carolina primary).

Reagan lost eight of the first nine primaries that year, but his victory in North Carolina sustained and energized his campaign. A loss likely would have knocked him from the race. Instead, Reagan rallied beginning in Texas, and almost denied President Ford renomination in a battle that lasted until the Republican convention. 

Similarly, the Fox News poll demonstrated conservative opprobrium for the Iran agreement. A full 83% of Republicans opposed it (vs. only 35% of Democrats). 

In both cases, the President secured enough support in the Senate to uphold the deal. The Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaties by the slim margin of 68-32 (it required 67 votes). Similarly, last week President Obama secured enough commitments from Senate Democrats to uphold a veto of a Congressional resolution of disapproval. It remains possible that Obama can secure enough support for a Senate filibuster (requiring 41 votes), which would kill the resolution of disapproval without it ever reaching his desk. 

There is, however, one stark difference between the two situations. The Panama Canal treaties secured bipartisan support in the Senate. Sixteen of the 38 Senate Republicans voted for ratification, including Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN). Many believe that Baker's support for the treaties ended any realistic chance of him winning the 1980 Republican Presidential primary. This Republican support allowed Democrats to overcome the opposition of 10 of the 62 Senate Democrats. 

Today, however, while Democrats remain somewhat divided (a fair number of Northeastern Democrats (especially in the House of Representative) oppose the Iran deal and plan to support the resolution of disapproval), Republicans appear to be unified in opposition. To date, not a single Republican member of Congress has expressed support for the deal (all 54 Republican senators have announced their support for the resolution of disapproval). 

This unified opposition comes in spite of several Republican foreign policy luminaries, including Lugar, an expert on nuclear proliferation, Brent Scowcroft (the National Security Adviser under the first President Bush) and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, supporting the deal. 

What explains the difference in the level of Republican support for the two deals? I'd offer 3 possibilities. The asymmetric polarization of the last 40 years certainly plays a role. Congressional Republicans are dramatically more conservative than they were in 1978. Thus, opposition on the right translates into far greater opposition among Congressional Republicans than it would have thirty-seven years ago. 

Second, during the period beginning after World War II and ending in the 1990s, international agreements, and matters of foreign policy more broadly, tended to avoid being partisan matters. Plenty of intense debate occurred, but it was on ideological grounds, and elected officials viewed these kinds of votes as matters of conscience. 

As Ira Shapiro recounts in The Last Great Senate, Baker knew that his support for the Panama Canal treaties would be politically devastating. Yet, he viewed supporting the treaties to be the statesmanlike and morally appropriate thing to do. His support echoed the crucial support of legendary Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) for the international system after World War II. 

Today, however, just about every issue gets caught up in the deep partisan fissures dividing our political class (some of that change, of course, stems from the greater ideological cohesion of the parties). 

A third factor may also contribute to the difference between the two debates. The conservative media and social media machine that plays a major role in Republican politics today did not exist in 1978. Senators voting for the Panama Canal Treaties could expect opposition from conservative outlets and organizations. Yet, they didn't have to worry about 24/7 cable news, talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere widely publicizing and harshly criticizing their support for the treaties.

This change in the media makes it far harder for senators today to deviate from conservative policy preferences without political consequences. Conservative media personalities can be major forces in Republican primaries, and crossing them on a major issue, such as the Iran agreement, can be quite dangerous politically. 

None of this is to argue that legitimate policy qualms are not driving some of the Republican opposition to the Iran agreement. Yet, it seems unlikely that a deal which garners support from the likes of Lugar, Scowcroft, and Powell would not receive support from a single Congressional Republican unless politics and reflexive ideology contributed significantly to the opposition. 

Long term, the partisan divide over Iran indicates that getting bipartisan (and Congressional) support for international agreements on any topic will be quite difficult. It's hard to imagine ANY treaty receiving 67 votes in the Senate in the short or medium term.

Conservatives have long viewed international governance and binding agreements that might limit American flexibility with deep skepticism. As conservative dominance of the Republican party has increased, it has becomes increasingly difficult to get the requisite Republican support for binding international agreements of any sort (In 2012, Republicans even torpedoed a treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities, in spite of a plea from party luminary Bob Dole).

The Iran deal reminds us of this reality, and demonstrates yet again the poor match between our increasingly ideological and partisan politics and the constitutional framework for our government. 

Presidents will need to act creatively, and in many cases, unilaterally, to address the increasingly interconnected world given the current state of Congress. 

A One Word Business Model: Entertainment

Jonathan Ladd wrote a recent post for Mischiefs of Faction on different business models for news gathering. After receiving feedback, Ladd added the following as part of an addendum:

Second, several people asked me how Fox News and conservative talk radio fit into this. That is a good question. It is another type of bundling that I didn't mention: bundling political information with inducements to outrage and ideological solidarity. There certainly is political information provided by these media. But the new information takes up a small percentage of the broadcasts. They way these programs are made entertaining is, as Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj describe in their book The Outrage Industry, by discussing and getting outraged about the news, and mad at ideological opponents. Ideological cheerleading can be quite entertaining, and is another way to subsidize news coverage.

I wanted to expand somewhat on Ladd's depiction and to reframe it in a way that I think is more reflective of the talk radio business. 

The goal of talk radio is entertainment. Politics can be a vehicle for entertaining listeners, just like sports can be that vehicle on sports talk radio. But it is merely a vehicle. Talk radio hosts, unlike journalists, don't set out every morning to inform their listeners. At least not as their primary goal. They wake up every morning trying to produce the most entertaining and riveting radio program possible. Conveying information happens as part of entertaining.

Berry and Sobieraj offer one method for providing entertainment—outrage or outrageous content. They broadly define the term to include sarcasm and other forms of mockery. 

I would, however, argue that talk radio's content is broader than simply outrage. Conservative talk radio provides an electronic corner bar in a conservative neighborhood. The host is the guy who has everyone in stitches laughing, or who has everyone nodding their heads as he sermonizes about the news of the day. Outrage might be one element of that content. But it is only one element. 

The best talk radio pushes boundaries and is fast paced, absurd, zany, and lots of fun. You never know what the host might say next. It includes parodies, music, sound effects, humorous nicknames, random musings, discussion of apolitical topics, and even conversation about the host's life. Locally based hosts also talk about relevant events or debates in a community.

A host might go from discussing Hillary Clinton's email usage to talking about the propriety of red light cameras or publicly funded stadiums. In the next hour, he or she might lead a discussion on how to best deal with pesky bugs or the proper temperature for cooking a steak before going back to politics. 

My research shows that talk radio pioneered a model that has subsequently been adopted by the blogosphere and cable news for a conservative, entertainment driven product. What are the key elements of this model?

Hosts challenge mainstream news reporting, often turning the media into a target for derision. They point out cases where the media looks stupid, makes mistakes, or appears to be hopelessly biased. They also cover stories that are important to conservatives, but might be ignored by mainstream outlets that don't consider them to be newsworthy.

Talk radio and cable news also provide a place where conservatives can see their views triumph in debates. Debates make for great radio or TV. They can be exciting and full of tension. But the debates on talk radio and cable news aren't designed to be fair (or balanced).

For example, the Fox News program, "The Five," typically features four conservative panelists of varying stripes and one liberal. The deck is stacked in favor of the conservatives. Similarly, on talk radio, a conservative host might have a liberal guest, but after 10 minutes the guest will be gone, and the host can keep talking about what he or she said. In this way, talk radio is soap opera with heroes and villains and listeners can tune in each day to see their champions vanquish evil. 

One common misperception is that talk radio only talks about politics. In reality, hosts discuss whatever people might be discussing at the office water cooler that day. Sometimes that is politics, and sometimes it isn't. What differs about talk radio is that, like at a conservative dinner table, conservative values and sensibilities guide the discussion of even apolitical topics. 

Each host has a unique style. Some are street brawlers. The late New York star Bob Grant used to delight listeners by bellowing at callers to get off his phone. In his early days, Rush Limbaugh used nicknames, parodies, topical updates (which had humorous theme music), and absurdity to entertain listeners. Other hosts hang their hats on being good interviewers. 

Each host also has unique interests outside of politics. Mike Gallagher frequently acts in theater productions. Limbaugh loves football and frequently discusses the NFL. Michael Medved used to be a movie critic, and thus regularly talks about movies. 

But for each host, the business model is the same—provide the most entertaining product in order to get the most listeners who tune in for the longest possible time. These are the keys to charging high advertising rates and selling advertising loads. 

While people can become better informed from listening to talk radio, it is not an informational venue in the same way that the nightly news or a newspaper is. 


A Response to Jackie Calmes on Conservative Media

The New York Times' Jackie Calmes recently published a paper for the Shorenstein Center entitled, '“THEY DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT GOVERNING” CONSERVATIVE MEDIA’S INFLUENCE ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY."'

Many of Calmes's points echo things that I've written, both in my recent doctoral dissertation, but also in the pieces that I've published for Politico and Time

While Calmes and I agree on many of the core contentions in her article (albeit often employing different terminology—for example, she talks about conservative media's ability to set the agenda within the Republican Party, whereas I talk about party leadership), there are a few points where my research either amplifies or challenges Calmes's claims. 

For starters, we disagree on the periodization at play. Calmes indicates that the power of conservative media over the Republican agenda (or conservative media's influence over the Republican party) grew substantially thanks to technology (and proliferation of outlets) after 2008. My research, however, demonstrates the ample power of conservative media dating back to the 1990s. 

Conservative talk radio hosts were major party leaders by the middle of the 1990s—exerting precisely the same type of influence (i.e. limiting the ability of elected party leaders to maneuver and govern, albeit not to quite the same degree) and also performing many traditional party leadership functions. My research discusses the way in which Republican politicians and their staffs cultivated conservative talk radio hosts and helped to create the potent political force that many establishment Republicans lament today. 

Calmes accurately explains that conservative media personalities have grown increasingly hostile towards party leaders over the last 20 years, but they expressed plenty of displeasure even in the late 1990s and often threw monkey wrenches into the legislative process. 

Hosts had such great influence that small groups of them had private meetings in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush during the last few years of his presidency (2006-2008). In so much as conservative media's influence has grown, it may owe simply to changeover in the Republican caucus, which now contains many more firebrands who are apt to prioritize the opinion of conservative media over the preferences of the elected leadership. 

Calmes doesn't discuss moderate Republicans at all, but my research details how talk radio hosts also became increasingly hostile towards moderate Republicans after the mid-2000s. This hostility has contributed to the near extinction of elected moderates, which in turn, makes it harder for the party to remain rooted in the center-right. 

On a smaller point, Calmes mischaracterizes Rush Limbaugh's earliest days nationally, describing his product as "caustic conservatism." Limbaugh's show during his first 4-5 years in national syndication is best described, however, as zany, off the wall, and fun— full of parodies, updates complete with their own theme songs, nicknames, etc. No doubt much of Limbaugh's message was conservative, and some of his bits were in poor taste (he apologized for AIDS updates and gave up caller abortions after a short period).

Nonetheless, Limbaugh epitomized lighthearted radio entertainment in those days, and only later shifted more towards tonally harsher political punditry. In many ways his content flipped—in the early days, politics (and his conservatism) provided a vehicle to entertain. Beginning in the mid-1990s, entertainment began to be a vehicle for expressing a message.

It's important to emphasize this point because Calmes does not state directly enough that the conservative media does not care about Republicans' ability to govern because most hosts view themselves first and foremost as entertainers. She accurately notes that conservative talk radio is a business—a point that many others miss—but much of what she describes about conservative media's content stems from conservative hosts prioritizing entertaining their listeners/viewers.

This is a significant difference between the first wave of conservative media that Calmes mentions, and hosts from the era that began when Limbaugh debuted nationally. This distinction explains why, as Calmes' notes, today's hosts conduct profitable programs, whereas sermonizers like Clarence Manion and Dan Smoot relied on the largesse of conservative benefactors.  

The hyperbolic, outrageous nature of talk radio content results from this focus on entertainment. Talk radio often represents a morality play of good and evil, not just in response to the extreme views of talk radio listeners. Rather, this oversimplified real life soap opera is a function of nuance being boring and complicated.

The best talk radio is simple, entertaining, emotional, pushes boundaries, and leaves the listener wondering what a host might say or do next. If a listener knows precisely what to expect, he or she has less incentive not to miss a minute. Compromise, moderation, and nuance simply make for poor radio and cable television. 

This is evident from talk radio's aversion to the necessities of governing, which displayed itself from the minute Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995. Calmes briefly juxtaposes Limbaugh being an honorary member of the House freshman class after Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994, and the support that conservative media lent to a coup to overthrow House Speaker John Boehner after Republicans again assumed unified control of Congress in early 2015. 

Calmes does not attribute this change to one cause—though she focuses mostly on the increased pressure caused by the proliferation of conservative outlets and the need to maintain and attract audiences. Undoubtedly, hosts' hostility towards establishment Republicans grew over time, but this juxtaposition incorrectly suggests that hosts accepted the compromises required by governance before the Obama years.

They did not. They pressed for the most extreme form of legislation any time that Republicans controlled the White House, the House, or the Senate, and they often lambasted Republican sponsored legislation for being insufficiently conservative. 

Before the 1994 midterm elections (when conservative talkers had perhaps their most substantial impact on general election contests), conservative hosts and Congressional Republicans largely shared the same political goals—defeat President Clinton's initiatives and trigger a Republican takeover of Congress. 

As several Republican Congressional leaders from the mid-1990s explained to me, however, once that achievement occurred, this unity of purpose fractured. Republicans tried to govern, and hosts focused on their 3 primary goals: producing the most entertaining product possible, remaining authentic and true to their principles, and maintaining the bond with their audience. Hosts were no happier with compromise in the mid-1990s and, indeed, railed against it. 

Similar to today, hosts in that period experienced a mixed track record of success when trying to shape the party's actions and policy outcomes. On smaller issues that received less attention, they had the ability to move and shape public policy. On larger issues that received lots of attention from an array of media outlets, they could often serve as a negative—preventing legislation from making it into the statute books—but their ability to positively enact their agenda was fairly small. 

I've documented talk radio's impact on legislation (and congressional procedure) dating back to 1994 and continuing straight through to the present day. Similarly, congressional Republicans, Republican campaigns, and the Bush White House had dedicated outreach operations to talk radio beginning as soon as Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995.

The rise of the blogosphere lessened the importance of talk radio, but the outreach to conservative media persists today (as Calmes' discusses with regard to Republican presidential candidates courting Iowa host Steve Deace). 

This raises a final point: Calmes writes, "Conservative media indeed draws much of its power, Republicans say, from incumbents’ fear of a primary challenge." This point requires greater emphasis. Talk radio's electoral power is inverse to the size of the electorate/turnout. In other words, it is least potent in presidential general elections and most potent in House primaries (and other down ballot races). 

In a House primary (or a Senate primary) the electorate is small, and tends to consist of the sorts of dedicated voters who consume conservative media. Voters also can't fall back on party labels to guide them in voting. As my research details, talkers also can undermine the major benefits of incumbency by raising an insurgent's profile and improving his or her fundraising. 

The power that talk radio exerts in the Republican Party derives from this ability to influence primary elections. Opposition from conservative media poses a far greater threat to a rank and file member of Congress than does a piqued Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader. Unless and until the establishment demonstrates an ability to oust disloyal members in primaries, this will remain true (absent some form of electoral reform that lessens the impact of primaries). As primaries have grown in importance due to redistricting and one party states that render general elections non-competitive, the power of conservative media has also increased. 

Overall, Calmes makes many good points and her paper is worth reading. Far too little attention has been paid to the impact that conservative media has had in shaping the Republican Party and public policy since the modern era of conservative media began in 1988.